Friday, July 2, 2010

Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956) — Aliens like Ike

This entertaining antiquity so perfectly captures the spirit and content (good and bad, which can be interchangeable terms here) of 1950s "B" sci-fi cinema that it deserves its own commemorative postage stamp.

A small-budget opus perfectly tuned to its times, today Earth vs. the Flying Saucers is an essential treat for fans of vintage genre mileposts or of the stop-motion animation ingenuity of Ray Harryhausen — two categories of fandom with a significant overlap. And let's add anyone who thinks that Independence Day had an original idea in its bloated little head. 

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers hit the screens in 1956, when Americans were up to their poodle skirts in a UFO craze that impacted pop culture from book shelves to lunchboxes. Certainly, when compared to A-list saucer sagas such as The Day the Earth Stood Still ('51) or Forbidden Planet (also '56), there's no question that this is a modest little pulp potboiler with no pretensions but a good deal of two-fisted rock 'em, sock 'em verve.

Having sent a giant octopus to deliver carnage to San Francisco in It Came from Beneath the Sea ('55), this time Harryhausen brought alien marauders down from the skies to fire their disintegrator ray guns and crash their saucers into Washington D.C. landmarks — a wrecked saucer slicing through the Capitol Dome is one of filmdom's perfect images — during the climactic battle scene.

When an alien spacecraft lands on Earth, scientist Russell Marvin (Hugh Marlowe) suspects that the aliens' declaration of peaceful intent is a ruse. Of course he's right. The aliens contact Marvin and arrange for an onboard meeting, where they reveal their plans to take over Earth, giving Marvin 56 days to set up a conference in Washington D.C. for humanity's surrender, or else the orbiting attack fleet will let it rip with their superior bad-assitude.

Resistance is, as is the way of things, futile, a point demonstrated by the casual obliteration of humanity's fighter jets, armies, and assorted postcard monuments.

With his new bride (Joan Taylor) by his side, Marvin gains Pentagon support to build a super-raygun that exploits a weakness in the spaceships' propulsion fields. Then the gloves come off as humans and saucers duke it out with apocalyptic brio on the White House lawn and elsewhere throughout the Eisenhower administration.

The actors in Earth vs. The Flying Saucers don't embarrass themselves, even when their characters are dime-novel cutouts with dialogue earnest to the point of calcification. Only a cad would complain that the abundant scientific jargon baloneys through the "sci" half of the sci-fi equation, or that the helmeted aliens are dull stiff-legged tin men.

Like the following year's 20 Million Miles to Earth, this sprocketed prufrock is not Citizen Kane, nor was it meant to be. Earth vs. the Flying Saucers stands tall above most of its drive-in kin thanks to the sheer spectacle of Harryhausen's painstaking model animation effects. The whirring gunmetal-gray spaceships, dishing out destruction as they leap off the pages of magazines schoolboys hid behind their math books, still offer testimony to Harryhausen's uniquely subtle and expressive imagination and skill.

Genre stalwart Curt Siodmak contributed to the script and director Fred F. Sears (who helmed nine movies in '56 alone) kept the engine running with zero flair yet with straight-faced aplomb and gosh-wow vigor.

It's all high goofiness, but as one of Harryhausen's early black-and-white popcorn flicks (recently well colorized for DVD and Blu-ray), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers helped set the table for Jason and the Argonauts, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Mysterious Island, First Men in the Moon, and other achievements that solidified his name as a maestro whose influence on fantastical films remains palpable today.

Triviata: That's Paul Frees' uncredited voice, very familiar to at least two generations, providing both the narration and the voice of the alien attack force. In 1996, Tim Burton, with an affectionate wink and a nod, saluted Earth vs. the Flying Saucers in Mars Attacks.

Music: The Who, Who's Next
Near at hand: Ceramic coaster with an inset Claddagh design.